Recently some of the information from the website I made some time ago has been transferred by Reverend Kaspalita to the much cleaner-looking Amida India website.
However, as some of the history of how the Amida Order came to be involved have been condensed, here are some of the stories:
Dharmavidya ~ The beginning: How Amida became involved
Back in the 1990s sometime I was at a meeting concerned with our work in Africa when a bhikkhu gave me a letter from a Chakma refugee in India. I replied to the letter and thus began our involvement with the Chakma tribal people in the North East. In due course this led to visits by representatives of the Chakmas to Amida trust in the UK. One of these was another bhikkhu, Anomadharsi. He urged us to start a project in India and advised that it would be best to do so in Delhi. In due course Amida people, including Acharya Modgala, were on their way to Delhi to set up an educational project. The scheme worked with children of impoverished families and focused on the teaching of English. Language teaching, however, also provided a vehicle for examination of social attitudes and an attempt to introduce an approach to education that is non-violent and inclusive. The project was a success, but we certainly had to learn a lot ourselves about the local culture and possible ways of proceeding. In due course a disciple of Modgala, Reverend Sahishnu, a minister in the Amida Order, took over the leadership of the project and with a notably creative and imaginative style was able to increase the outreach of the project to more groups living in even greater degrees of deprivation. Later Jnanamati, an Amida amitarya, also became involved and has given support to the Delhi project and also to the work of the Tathagata Trust in Assam with whom we have latterly established good connections. Modgala, Sahishnu, Jnanamati and numerous volunteers have done courageous work with minimal resources and the projects in Delhi and Assam now, in addition to teaching English, also provide important support to those in India who wish to return to traditional forms of Buddhism as a basis for community development, social advancement and the spread of wisdom and compassion.
Beginnings - Modgala's Story
In July 2004 Dharmavidya asked me to go to India. Previously I had said no but this time I said yes, because Anomadharshi, a Chakma monk, who had co-founded the Maitri project in Delhi, convinced me of the need and I learnt that there was already an excellent experienced volunteer on board – Joy Marston*. The request was to provide teaching of English as a foreign language to people of the disadvantaged and oppressed Dalit community, as the ability to speak English in India is seen as a distinct advantage in the job market. There was also a need for Buddhist teachings, because many Dalits are Buddhists, their families having been followers of Dr Ambedkar and converting to Buddhism in the 1950s.
In November 2004 Joy, Cathy (another volunteer) and I went to join Anomadharshi in East Delhi where the Maitri project had rented a large apartment. This was to give us accommodation and provide teaching spaces. The Chakmas (monks and lay people) advertised our presence and we did wonder if anyone would come. Initially only two teenage boys turned up, but they spread the word and soon we had over 50 children and young people, so that we had to set up a waiting list for daytime classes and provide evening sessions for the older students.
In the beginning there were struggles around discipline with our students. They were used to learning by rote and had never experienced our teaching methods. It soon became clear that it would be vital to set up a code of conduct. This was practical and effective and helped students realise a new way of living and learning in a gentler but lively, structured and disciplined atmosphere.
Joy, an experienced teacher, inspired the younger ones, Cathy set up classes with older students, and I held conversation classes as our students started to be able to speak some English. In my classes, we discussed the many difficulties that faced young people and the activities they enjoyed – particularly cricket!. Ultimately we were able to talk about preparing for exams, interviews and the world of work. This demonstrated our students’ growing confidence. As our experience grew, we decided that the classes worked best for 15 to 25 year olds, we put in place an active programme of encouraging female students and we also welcomed students of all faiths.
Requests came for Joy to teach in Buddhist temples where there were predominantly younger students. We were also asked to go to Shanti Nagar where there was a Buddhist community on the outskirts of Delhi. I will never forget the look on the women’s faces at Shanti Nagar when they first experienced Joy’s teaching and realised that they too could learn some English. They had thought it was impossible. This is another important aspect of the project – learning instills confidence and faith.
While we were in Delhi, the Tsunami happened and I was asked to visit and see the devastation and to see where Amida Trust could help. The worst affected were the very poor Dalits. I went around giving talks and meeting with people and distributing books and bags to the children who had lost everything. When we returned to India in 2005 we had nine volunteers who divided their time between the Delhi project and the children’s hostel in Tamil Nadu to help Tsunami-affected children recover from the trauma.
*The Delhi project was subsequently run by Joy Marston, who is now called Sahishnu, having been given this name when she ordained as an Amida Minister.
Acharya Modgala Duguid ordained as a nun in 1998 and is a senior teacher in the Amida Order.
Kaspalita reflects on his visits to Amida Delhi
I've been to the Delhi three times with Amida, the first time was just a flying visit when I went to support some refuge ceremonies there, the second and third time were substantial visits, about six weeks each, I think. At the most basic level, I went because I was asked to, but of course it was more than that. I was excited to visit another culture, and nervous too. I had been inspired by hearing Saishnu and Modgala talk about their time there and was eager to experience it for myself.
The families we worked alongside were mostly Dalit families, and mostly converted to Buddhism because of Dr Ambedkar. There's plenty written on how difficult it has been for Dalit families in India, and it's a complex picture, but it's true that in my time in Delhi there were stories of violence coming from caste differences, and stories from the families we worked alongside that showed me castesim is far from gone.
I first visited Amida Delhi in 2010 shortly after joining the sangha of the Amida Order, then based in Narborough in the UK. Not only was I just starting out on a path of training where many things were new to me but also this was my first time in India and first time travelling outside of Europe.
I remember the first day distinctly, the warm welcome from Rev. Sahishnu, Prakash Nagar (now a Lay Order member) and members of the sangha, most of whom I met at the small flat Prakash rented for us. A gathering in my honour, that evening I had the pleasure to encounter the people who would subsequently become special friends, and dharma brothers and sisters.
In the weeks that followed I assisted Rev. Sahishnu as she conducted English classes with children in some of the poorest areas on the borders between Delhi and Uttah Pradesh. It was also a great pleasure to be invited to conduct Buddhist services with those who had decided to follow the Amidist way.
I only have space for a short summary here, and anything I share will not do full justice to the project or the richness of experience I have received through my involvement. I have since returned to the project now on a number of separate occasions, either to assist the sangha directly or to visit friends when travelling to other parts of India. In that time I have seen the sangha move to new premises in Ashok Nagar, seen Dharma friends ordain and others advance in their roles in relation to the Amida Order and the Delhi sangha itself.
The generosity of spirit stands out amongst members in Delhi, and this despite the evident paucity of resources and conditions they must face in their daily lives. In fact our most senior community leaders, Suvidya and Suando live in a one room dwelling with their two grown up sons and dog, Jacky. Despite these challenges they give as much as they can and are dedicated to the development of the small group of Buddhists that make up their community. I am privileged to count many as my friends and to have been welcomed into the lives of some very special people. I have spent time teaching wonderfully open hearted children and now have had the opportunity to witness how many who have attended the classes have developed and grown through Sahishnu's efforts.
Amita Jnañamati, Amitarya OAB
Sujatin: Most of the photographs on this site are by Jnanamati for which, great thanks
Sahishnu - how I came to be involved with the project in Delhi
I had been a member of the Amida Sangha since the late 1990s, during which time I became a disciple of Modgala’s. When I heard about the proposal for work in Delhi under the Maitri project in 2004, I asked if I could go to India with Modgala as a volunteer and help her to set it up. Back then, at the beginning, I had very little idea of how deeply involved I would later become.
Although the work of teaching English to people of the Dalit community was valuable, at the beginning I did feel rather like a service provider trapped in an authoritarian Victorian kind of school, where the teacher was the fount of all knowledge, with the task of merely prepping the students for their exams. I knew that the suicide rate is very high within the Dalit community, and I was desperate to do what I could to help change the mind set that led to the suicides. So while the work was rewarding, I still felt that we were not reaching the very poor Dalits (former Untouchables) that I so wanted to help.
One day, I accompanied Modgala to the grounds of a small temple where she had been invited by some female students to tell them about Pureland Buddhism. A small gang of kids turned up disrupting the discussion, so I took them into the temple and kept them busy with rhymes and actions. They enjoyed themselves so much that they begged me to come back and to teach them some more. I
agreed and did so, and within weeks over 100 kids in this slum would turn up to learn because it was fun. Moms and Dads came too, and then over time people came from other areas to ask me to teach their communities, having heard about me through word of mouth.
When the Maitri project folded, I relocated to a flat just outside that slum. By this time, I had been asked to become project leader. I decided to extend the outreaches into the slums and to teach English to the younger children in a fun, interactive and engaging way, in an attempt to instill a love of learning and creativity. Through doing the teaching work I have become very much part of the local
communities, and on their request started to teach them about Pureland Buddhism. We now have a healthy set of communities who have become Pureland practitioners, with 1 Lay Order member, 3 Gankonin and more joining Amida-shu each year. We hold weekly services at our new centre above our Order Member Prakash’s house. I love the ladies’ day best when we have a meal together and a service. We serve 5 communities now: Laxmi Garden, Shanti Nagar, Jawan Nagar, Ambedker Colony and Ashok Nagar. Of course I
continue to teach English to these communities and also to the street beggar children in Pahar Ganj in the backpacker area of Delhi. We supply all the materials necessary, as although there is a room, desks and a whiteboard, all of which have been donated, there are no teachers (apart from myself) or teaching materials at all. I am now involved in training people from within these communities to carry on the project: for instance, I am teaching the Pahar Ganj child councilor how to teach as I do, and I am training members of the Sangha to become Buddhist ministers in their own right.
Endorsement of Sahishnu and her work in Delhi
So honourable and most respectable Madam Sahishnu
You have prepared to leave for England. It is unbearable sorrow for us all. But it is urgent to go to you. England is your motherland and everybody likes to love one's country. You must go to gain your family. It is our great pleasure.
You came to India by sparing your most valuable time and your health also does not favour you, yet summoned the courage to come to us to teach English [to] poor children and you taught not only the children but also us. We had a great inspiration from you to be devoted to Lord Buddha's doctrines and his religion. Buddha who had come over worst persons. He was the prophet of peace, love and equality. What a glorious matter you have embraced (adopted) His religion. He taught the people that no one is greater or lower than one another. He taught all are born equal and have same (equal) right to live. Even he thought that all creatures are equal to human, loved equally. It is a matter of great pride you follow Him (Buddha). All the members as well as the Proctor (Bhanteji) wish to express their gratitude and obligations to you. The Bl (belong to Samrat Ashoka Buddha Temple). The Committee (Regd) to Samrat Ashoka Budha Temple) wishes that Amida Trust should take it over and make it run. It is well better it runs under eye and care of the Trust.
Amida Trust is indulged to take Buddha's message and teaching all over the world. His message causes peace and tranquility in the world. He wishes so and you [are] on the way to carry on his words. You are great like Buddha and Baba Saheb Ambedkar. Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar revived his religion and brought a new sensation and awakening among the troddens. He gave the great talismans to Dalits (trampled):
1: To be educated
2: to be united
3: To make struggle
Baba Saheb Bhim Ambedkar was also great like Buddha. We can say that Baba Saheb was the incarnation of 'Buddha'.
Madam, we are unable to repay you of your devotion and dedication towards 'Buddha'. You read about Buddha through Baba Saheb's books and you left for Buddha's mission of religion. We have no words to express your obligation and gratitudes. We would say only that you are great and we hope [for] your happy and long life by the grace of great Buddha and hope [that you] come again next year.
Endorsement of Sahishnu by the residents of Laxmi Gardens
On behalf of the residents of Laxmi Garden colony (slum) Loni (Ghaziabad) U.P.,
we are the residents of Laxmi Garden Colony Loni Ghaziabad U.P.
Herewith, we beg to state that on the request (invitation) of all of us, Madam
Sahishnu comes here (to this place) - how glad we are, no words we have [to
express this]. [Despite] being so ill, she comes to us and fills us with great joy.
Everybody - children alike elders - are very much pleased with her and wish
[that she comes] every year. She not only teaches English [to] the children but
she also gives the complete information about Guatam Buddha and jewel of
India Baba Saheb Ambedkar. Everybody listens her very attentively. She tells
about Buddha and his teaching in a good way. She teaches the children English
Grammar nicely, [sets] the children tests and gives prizes to the well-doers.
She gives the children toffees, toys, pencils, stars, and books related to Buddha
and Ambedkar. She spends a lot of money on such good deeds. We can never
forget her [and] we wish her long life so she may guide us. We are consider[ably]
indebted and owed to her. She gets many papers prepared to give the test of
English Grammor and Buddha as well as Babasad Ambedkar – [before] we were
all most ignorant about both these great personalities. Now we are familiar with
them through respected SahishnuGi. She is [a] good fan of them and considers
them a means of inspiration.
Sushma Gautam Choudhury Amint
P.S: You have passion and compassion. You have compassion like Quan Shi
Yin so you [are] Quan Shi Yin for us.
Sarvesh Bodh Rakhi Gautam Naresh Gautam Arvind Gautam
Kaspalita's visit to Delhi, August 2014
Reverend Kaspalita visited the Delhi sangha, at the behest of the Trust, in August 2014. On 23rd he wrote:
From Delhi, with love
It’s my second day here in Delhi and my first full day after my arrival yesterday morning. My energy levels are up and down. I guess that comes from a combination of the heat during the day, the heat during the night that keeps me awake, and the fact I’m still catching up from the loss of sleep on an overnight flight where I, perhaps foolishly, thought I would be able to slumber the whole night through.
I'm here on behalf of Amida Trust, who will be more directly funding the project here. In the past we have supported the project through sending volunteers, and through providing Sahishnu with the funds she needed when she was the project leader here.
Now the project (the Amida activity, if you like) is being led by Suvidya a Minister in our Order, and he has created a local organisation which the Trust will fund to enable the project to continue.
I'm here to make sure everything that needs to be in place, is in place as much as it can be, in order for that to happen.
Suvidya and his wife Suando came over this morning and we caught up with our respective news. They both look well and Suvidya’s English is much better than the last time I was here four years ago.
I was heartened to hear that Suvidya hosts services at his home each morning and evening, and that people from the local community come and join him. He’s also teaching Buddhist classes and basic English classes to children.
English is one of the official languages here in India in a country with so many different official languages it often becomes the language of choice when people with two different native languages meet, although I hear that this may be changing with the new prime minister.
Either way it’s still an important skill and one that children of poor families often don’t get much support in learning. When the Order first made friends in Delhi we asked them, “what’s the most useful thing we can do to help?” Teaching English was the answer.
Suvidya is also meeting lots of different people interested in Pureland Buddhism. We talked about how we don’t feel like we need to convert people to this style of Buddhism. Suvidya has said that some people practicing Theravaden Buddhism here are quite happy in their own tradition, and in terms of reaching out to people with an Amidist message, it’s often non-Buddhists who are more interested.
This is equally true in the UK of course, if you are happy with the tradition you are practicing in you might be interested to learn about other forms of Buddhism, but you’re not likely to attend their meetings.
Part of the role I feel we have is to support people who have faith in good things, whether or not those good things go by the same name as our good things. This isn’t to say we should throw away our critical thinking, but to appreciate that there are many good ways of practicing. It was good to hear Suvidya coming to the same conclusions.
A great deal of the work he does is teaching Buddhism to the children of families who are either neglected by other monks, or are in relationships to monks who have been taught how to chant a few texts in Pali but are less adept at putting across teachings in local languages.
I am sure the care he shows and the enthusiasm he has for his faith is equally as important as the content of the message he is teaching.
Suvidya and Suando spent the morning here, but by lunchtime they could see I was flagging and took their leave.
I’ll meet them again tomorrow morning.
I’ve got some energy back this afternoon, perhaps I am becoming a little more used to the heat, or more likely having a rest helped. Anyway it’s given me the concentration I’ve needed to write here, and to catch up on a few other bits and pieces.
With love from Delhi, where they are waiting for the rains,
Kaspalita's visit to Delhi, August 2014: 2 A Buddhist Class in India
On 24th August Kaspalita wrote:
The sky is darkening as I write this. It’s the end of Sunday and I’ve been much more awake today. Either I’m getting used to the heat or I have just caught up on the sleep I had been missing out on.
This afternoon I took the opportunity to visit one of the children’s classes that Suvidya is teaching. I was curious to see what they were like now that he’s leading them on his own, and wanted to make the most of my revived energy levels.
Yesterday there were around thirty children in the afternoon class, today there were just under twenty. There’s no register, so to speak, although the children that do appear are all regulars.
We met in the front room of Suvidya’s brother’s house today. I think it was the atmosphere that impressed me the most, and Suvidya’s unhurried relaxed leadership. There were children of all ages there, from just a couple of years up to fifteen. It was wonderful to see them all sharing the space, interacting with each other and being interested in what was happening in the class.
It was the English lesson first, and then the Buddhist class. Whilst anyone can drop in to the English classes, Suvidya makes sure that only children with their parent’s permission come to the Buddhist group. Today most of the children in the Buddhist group were from Hindu families, it’s crucial for the children to get the parent’s permission in those cases (in all cases really), and for us to be clear that they have it. We don’t want to convert people, which is a sensitive issue in India, rather make a space for those that want to attend to attend.
There was chanting, prostrations, a ‘pop quiz’ on the five precepts, and I told a story to the class before seeing the magnificent pictures they had been colouring in.
I did take a few photos but don’t seem to have captured any smiles, although there were lots of smiles there. I think they must all have been concentrating on what Suvidya was saying when I was behind the camera… that’s my excuse anyway.
Love from Delhi